Three former Auburn gymnasts are hoping to see positive changes within the program after having spoken out weeks ago and accused former teammates and coaches of racist behavior.
In June, Kennedy Finister, A’Miracal Phillips and Telah Black all made posts on social media alleging incidents of racial discrimination while they were a part of the Auburn gymnastics program. All three former gymnasts are Black and said that jokes were made at the expense of their skin color.
Finister was at Auburn from 2013-2018, Phillips competed for Auburn from 2016-2019 and Black was on the team from 2016-2018.
The posts made by each gymnast can be found on their respective Instagram accounts. The statements alleged times where former teammates used racially insensitive language on social media and in person.
The allegations made against some members of the Auburn gymnastics program include the use of the n-word multiple times in conversation by former teammates and a former trainer saying that the three Black gymnasts "talked like thugs."
The three also said they felt the coaching staff did not handle these issues properly.
“I talked to the other two, and I know that for a majority of the stuff, we just hope that the team is able to move in the right direction and be able to make improvements,” Phillips said to The Plainsman. “I’m sure it will help the team dynamics because it slowed us down in the past.”
Sign up for our newsletter
Get The Plainsman straight to your inbox.
According to the gymnasts, head coach Jeff Graba’s leadership style is largely a hands-off approach, wanting his team to settle issues instead of going to him.
The gymnasts also said that following their initial posts, Graba reached out to each of them and apologized.
In a statement to The Plainsman, Graba said “the events of the past weeks have opened some wounds and have been an emotional time, including instances where former Auburn gymnasts posted on social media about the times they did not feel supported or treated the way a member of the Auburn Family should be. I appreciate their authenticity."
Still, each gymnast wants the program to make changes to prevent racial discrimination from happening again and even suggested to Graba what he could do.
“I just told him from our perspective, we needed to feel more comfortable being able to come up and talk to him,” Finister said. “I understand he’s a leader, but at the same time, we needed to feel comfortable enough going up to him if we had any issues.”
Graba addressed these concerns in his statement.
"I’ve had to opportunity to listen, learn and apologize for where I’ve fallen short as a leader," Graba said. "Through these conversations, I’ve concluded that better communication practices are needed between me and our gymnasts. That starts with me."
Finister suggested the use of an anonymous dropbox for members of the team to voice their concerns and said the most important thing is to follow up on these issues or concerns and that players feel comfortable talking with Graba and other coaches.
“That was part of my issue when I was on the team,” Finister said. “I was just intimidated and didn’t feel like I could talk to him. Just making him more available will do wonders. If people do come up to him with concerns, he needs to take those seriously and also address it and punish those people.”
For instance, Finister believes that suspending people who discriminate or belittle their teammates because of their race from a few practices would show that these issues are serious and are being handled appropriately.
“Maybe some type of course where they sit all the athletes down and educate people,” Black said. “That’s really what the problem is; people aren’t educated enough on what type of privilege they have or what type of system black people have to fight against.”
Finister said she wants to see a once-a-semester training for all athletes where they can discuss racial issues and be educated about why they are wrong. In her case, she wants people to know that saying things like, “you sound really educated for a black girl” or touching other people’s hair crosses the line.
While they want the department to add a diversity class or training, they also want the athletic department to follow through when a problem is brought to them.
Lastly, the three gymnasts also have messages for what they want people in the program and even former teammates to take away from their statements detailing the racial discrimination that they faced.
“I think, honestly, it’s just to be mindful of your words, and that’s nothing new," Finister said. “Words, they hurt, and even if they are small things, they add up over time.”
Finister also reiterated that she is not trying to bring any hate to the program or former teammates; she wants to see a change happen, which is why she said she put out her statement.
Phillips just wants future gymnasts to feel welcome when coming to Auburn.
“Just let people know that their voices are heard and help them feel comfortable,” Phillips said. “When I talked to Jeff, I said, make sure everyone is on a level playing field for the most part. When they come in, just make them comfortable and make them feel like Auburn is their new home and their voices will be heard.”
Graba also stressed the importance of moving forward in a positive direction.
"In gymnastics, we train our student-athletes to fight for every tenth, to constantly work to improve," he said. "Going forward, I, along with our assistant coaches and everyone associated with Auburn gymnastics, will do exactly that. We will strive to create a culture where everyone feels valued, celebrated and protected.”
Black keeps it simple, bringing up the golden rule for people to take away.
“Treat others the way you want to be treated,” Black said. “They wouldn’t want me to be mean to them or disrespect them.”
Do you like this story? The Plainsman doesn't accept money from tuition or student fees, and we don't charge a subscription fee. But you can donate to support The Plainsman.Support The Plainsman